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What dialogue looks like: Jewish-Christian relations


Leading up to the October anniversary of the historic document Nostra Aetate, the Prairie Messenger has been featuring “capsule biographies,” which are also posted on the “Catholic-Jewish Relations” section of the Scarboro Interfaith website ( There has been featured material on numerous individuals — Jews and Christians, men and women — who have played key roles in drafting the conciliar declaration, or who have led local, national or international efforts to put Nostra Aetate’s vision into practice, through various forms of dialogue, action and scholarship. This is the 11th in the series.

Cardinal Augustin Bea (1881-1968)

At an age when many people have long since retired, Augustin Bea found himself thrust into the heart of some of the most controversial debates in modern Catholic history — and became one of the quiet heroes of modern Jewish-Catholic relations.

Augustin Bea was born on Jan. 28, 1881, in the town of Riedböhringen (Germany) and, because of his attraction to the world of scholarship, he pursued studies at several universities in Germany and Holland. In 1902, he joined the Jesuit order (the Society of Jesus) and, on Aug. 25, 1912, he was ordained a priest. Most of his adult life was spent as a scholar and educator, including serving on the faculty of the renowned Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome from 1924 to 1949; in 1930, he was named as its rector, and he would hold that position for 19 years.

Bea distinguished himself as a biblical scholar, researching and writing extensively, assisting in the development of an improved Latin version of the Bible, and attending numerous scholarly conferences. It was during some of these conferences that Bea became friends with Protestant colleagues — and this marked the beginning of what would become a lifelong commitment to ecumenism and Christian unity.

Bea was a close confidant of Pope Pius XII, and was influential in the development of Pius XII’s landmark 1943 encyclical on the needed renewal of biblical studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu. In 1945, Bea was named as the personal priest-confessor to Pope Pius, and he would continue in that role until the pope’s death in 1958. He remained a close papal adviser to Pope John XXIII, who in 1959 named Bea a cardinal. In 1960, Bea was nominated as the president of the newly established Pontifical Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and would serve in that role until his death.

On June 13, 1960, the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac took part in a very significant one-on-one meeting with Pope John, asking that the pope consider adding a document on the Jews to the agenda for the recently announced Second Vatican Council. Several weeks later, Pope John forwarded Isaac’s materials to Cardinal Bea, asking that he gather a group of Catholic experts in Judaism to begin drafting a document on Judaism for the upcoming Council, to address the longstanding Christian “teaching of contempt” regarding Jews and Judaism. Bea gathered a number of knowledgeable priests, who prepared the first draft of what was then called the Decretum de Judaeis (the decree on the Jews).

The document proved to be extremely controversial, both because of its challenges to cherished theological ideas, but also because some Arab countries opposed any action that would give validity to the young State of Israel. On several occasions there was great uncertainty as to whether the decree would survive until a final, crucial vote on its contents. Many historians credit Cardinal Bea with a major role in “saving” the document: as a world-class Scripture scholar, his interpretations of difficult biblical passages carried great weight with his brother bishops, and his personal reputation meant that, when he rose to speak in the Council hall, the other bishops hushed in order to hear him. Bea spoke with humility and quiet authority, and it was widely acknowledged that his views echoed those of the pope. Even after the death of John XXIII and the election of Pope Paul VI, Bea was viewed by many as a wise, thoughtful and judicious interpreter of the Bible and church teaching, and he did not hesitate to use his stature and voice to rally support for the document that, after several successive revisions, was eventually issued at the end of October 1965 as Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Church’s Relationship to Non-Christian Religions.

In the years after the Council, Bea continued to work energetically for new Catholic attitudes toward Jews and non-Catholic Christians; his inter-religious and ecumenical work remained the focus of his efforts well into his 80s, and one author has described him as “one of the outstanding ecumenists of the 20th century.” In 1966, he published his own commentary on Nostra Aetate, titled The Church and the Jewish People, and he published several articles in newspapers, magazines and theological journals, presenting, explaining and defending key aspects of Vatican II’s teachings. He developed official relationships between the Catholic Church and several Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches, and it was under his leadership that the first Vatican Directory on Ecumenism was published in 1967.

Augustin Bea died on Nov. 16, 1968, and was buried alongside his parents in his hometown of Riedböhringen.

Tullia Calabi Zevi (1919-2011)

Journalists often have the opportunity for rare, up-close vantage-points on key historical events; they are frequently eyewitnesses to history. For the Italian journalist, Jewish community leader and interfaith pioneer Tullia Zevi, her life coincided with the blossoming of Jewish-Christian relations, and she was one of its protagonists and leading voices.

Born in Milan on Feb. 2, 1919, Tullia Calabi went on to study music at Milan’s Conservatory, and philosophy at the University of Milan. When, in September 1938, the Italian government passed a series of “race laws,” she and her family were vacationing in Switzerland, and her father (a prominent lawyer and anti-Fascist activist) announced that they would not be able to return to Italy. The family moved to France, where Tullia continued her university studies at the Sorbonne, and they eventually moved to the United States when France entered the Second World War (what she jokingly called her “American exile”); she continued her music studies at the Juilliard School in New York, and at Radcliff College in Massachusetts, working as a harpist to earn money. It was in New York that she began a long and distinguished career as a journalist, and it was there that she met her husband, Bruno Zevi, an architect, historian and art critic (they married in 1940). After the war, she returned to Italy in 1946, to help rebuild the shattered Italian Jewish community, and she was sent to cover the Nuremberg Trials and the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the few women to do so.

From 1960 to 1993, Tullia was a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Maariv, and she was a regular contributor to the British weekly newspaper The Jewish Chronicle and the Religion News Service, gaining an international reputation for the calibre of her reporting. In 1978, she was elected as vice-president of Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities (UCEI) and, in 1983, she became its president — the first woman ever to do so. During her five years in that position, she welcomed Pope John Paul II to the Tempio Maggiore (Rome’s main synagogue) for his historic visit in April of 1986.

One of the most prominent women in postwar Italian life, she was actively involved in politics, both in Italy and overseas, and counted many prominent politicians and cultural figures among her close personal friends. She spoke out eloquently and often against all forms of racism and discrimination, and in favour of human rights and an inclusive society. As she once wrote, “The seeds of intolerance are always lying in wait. Democracy is constructed so that we can be on the lookout for totalitarian regimes. But the danger is always there. A great American, Thomas Jefferson, said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and I believe that this should be our message to today’s young people.”

Tullia Zevi was a leading figure in national and international Jewish affairs, holding senior positions in Italian and global Jewish organizations. She was also an ardent advocate of dialogue between Jews and Christians, chosen in 1998 as president of the Commission for Intercultural and Interfaith Relations of the European Jewish Congress. Her commitment to inter-religious dialogue did not, however, prevent her from speaking critically at times, especially when she felt the Catholic Church was acting inappropriately in its relationship with the Jewish community.

In terms of her interfaith engagement, she once said: “The issue is to reach the conscience of the faithful, an effort which is underway. These things take time. We are a patient people, and the church is a patient institution. We move in slow times. The issue is to move in the right direction.”

Tullia was a much-loved figure in Rome’s Jewish community and, in her later years, was the recipient of numerous awards and citations for her inter-religious and political leadership, including Italy’s highest civilian honour, the Cavaliere di Grande Croce, which she was awarded in 1992, a year when she was also Italy’s nominee for the European Woman of the Year award. In 1994, the Italian Minister of Culture conferred its Gold Medal upon her for her work in the fields of education, culture and the arts. She served as a consultant to several Italian government ministries, and to UNESCO.

In 2007, Tullia published her autobiography, called Let Me Tell You My History: A Dialogue About Judaism Between a Grandmother and Her Grandchildren (in Italian: Ti racconto la mia storia: dialogo tra nonna e nipote sull’ebraismo), which was welcomed by many religious and political leaders. On Jan. 22, 2011, Tullia Zevi died at the age of 91, mourned by so many who had admired her leadership, strength and conviction. Rome’s former mayor, Walter Veltroni, called her “an extraordinary woman who was at once strong, courageous and meek,” and the World Jewish Congress’s Elan Steinberg spoke of her as “a clarion voice that warned against the dangers of neo-Nazism, not just to Jews, but to society and democracy as a whole.” Pope Benedict XVI sent a condolence telegram of his own, in which he “(recalled) her exalted moral profile and authoritative contribution to the development of values of democracy, peace and freedom in Italian society, and to sincere and profound dialogue between Jews and Christians.”

Today, a Roman school, the Istituto comprensivo Tullia Zevi, bears her name and continues her legacy.